It was shaping up to be one of those all-American crappy days, fifth in a continuing series, and I wasn't even awake yet. My wife, who sometimes talks in her sleep, got into a loud, profanity-spewing argument with someone in her dream. Trust me on this: When your wife starts swearing at 5 in the morning, your eyelids open.
I shook her out of the nightmare, but found myself unable to fall back asleep. So I went out to grab the paper, caught a few rogue allergens on an updraft, sneezed, and felt a muscle come apart in my upper-left trapezius. I couldn't turn my head more than 15 degrees the rest of the day. If someone standing to my left greeted me, I had to pretend I didn't like him enough to reply.
There's a reason I'm telling you all this:
What could have been just another ho-hum, awakened-by-a-nightmare, pulled-a-muscle, pretended-I-didn't-like-my-coworkers day was redeemed by an astounding discovery: Yoga makes it better. Or, more specifically, the breathing techniques used in yoga relieve the tension in neck and back muscles.
After I learned that, I went off in search of the answers to a few other exercise mysteries I'd always wondered about: What's the best exercise to do after a rough night out? Before a hot date? (Hey, you can have those with a wife—perhaps even your own.) When you need to impress your boss with your intellectual dexterity in a meeting at 4 p.m. Friday?
I found all this and more. In fact, I found that there's an exercise for just about every problem a man can have.
Get Ready for Your Big Date
Pump up your arms with supersets of biceps curls and triangle pushups, says the big M at Men's Health, exercise advisor Michael Mejia. After all, unless your date's paid for, your arm is the place she's most likely to touch you first, and the following arm service will leave yours pumped for a couple of hours, easy.
Inflate your assets: Grab an EZ-curl bar (the one shaped like a W) with an underhand grip and let it hang at arm's length in front of your body. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Do six to 10 curls, set the bar down, drop to the floor, and knock out as many triangle pushups as you can—that is, pushups with the tips of your index fingers and thumbs touching, forming a triangle. Rest 30 seconds and repeat. Do four to six supersets of the curls and pushups.
Extra credit: Make the curls tougher by extending your wrists backward and holding them that way for all your repetitions. This prevents your forearms from helping and makes your biceps work harder—and pump up bigger.
Survive a Breakup
Beat the crap out of something. An Emory University study found that a 75-minute tae kwon do class significantly raised the moods of the college students taking it. They had less tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and more vigor.
Get your kicks: If you don't have access to a martial-arts class, try this anyplace, anytime workout from Alwyn Cosgrove, former European tae kwon do champion and ass-kicker extraordinaire. (The workout is described for right-handers; lefties do the opposite.)
1. Warm up 10 minutes with calisthenics, stretches, and light punching and kicking.
2. Get into proper fighting stance (knees slightly bent; left leg in front, right leg behind, with the right foot turned out, so your legs are at 90 degrees to each other; most of your weight on your back foot; right fist next to your ear, as if you were making a phone call; left fist in front of your chin, like on karaoke night). Then throw 10 punches with your left hand.
3. Throw 10 left-right punch combinations.
4. Add a straight kick with your left leg. Imagine you're stamping down the garbage in a can that's horizontal at waist level—lift your left knee as high as you can, then drive it outward. Do 10 combinations: left punch, right punch, left kick.
5. Add a second right-hand punch. Do 10 combinations of left punch, right punch, left kick, right punch.
6. Add a round kick with your right leg. Imagine your right leg is a baseball bat, and you're swinging for the fences. Lift your right knee, then rotate your hips and straighten your right leg as you drive your foot into your target. Do 10 combinations of left punch, right punch, left straight kick, right punch, right round kick.
"That completes one 'round—110 punches, 40 kicks, and a ton of sweat," says Cosgrove. Rest 60 seconds and repeat. Go for three to five rounds.
Get Ready for a Night on the Town
To avoid stumbles and pratfalls—and perhaps avoid a broken hip down the road—try balance training. In a small study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, elderly subjects who did balance exercises two times a week for 8 weeks not only got their sea legs back, but also gained surprising strength.
Steady yourself: Try this balance-improving/leg-strengthening exercise, which will build your hamstring and gluteal muscles and help improve your steadiness for sports and sobriety tests:
1. Lie on your back on the floor. Set your left heel on a ball. Hold your right leg straight in the air. Your left knee should be bent about 45 degrees.
2. Push down with your left heel to lift your hips off the floor.
3. Hold 20 seconds, lower your hips, and repeat four times.
4. Switch legs and repeat.
Recover from a Night on the Town
Light to moderate aerobics will send more oxygen into your muscles, which helps you increase your energy, says Kathy Sward, an exercise physiologist at the University of Pittsburgh medical center. That may make your hangover slightly less hellish.
Sweat it out: Any type of aerobic exercise will do—running, cycling, rowing. Try for 15 to 20 minutes. If you go too hard or too long, you run the risk of making the problem worse by dehydrating yourself, increasing your levels of stress hormones, or otherwise overwhelming a body already wiped out from a night of 12-ounce curls. Do we need to add that you should drink plenty of water throughout the day?
Fend Off Work Stress
Try yoga breathing. When stress starts to build, you shift from "belly breathing" to "chest breathing." In belly breathing, your diaphragm pushes your belly out as your lungs fill with air, then pushes the air back out as your belly retracts.
But stress creates shallow breaths, in which your diaphragm stays put and the muscles surrounding your rib cage do the work. Those muscles get tighter and tighter, and at the end of a stress-fest your shoulders feel like rolled-up venetian blinds beneath your ears. A study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine recommends breathing training to get your shoulders unfurled and your neck and back relaxed.
Catch your breath: You sitting down? Good. Take such a deep breath that you can feel and see your stomach expand. Let it out. Take another one in. Try this a few times per hour, and see if your neck and shoulders don't feel better at the end of the day.
Extra credit: Almost any type of light exercise has the same effect—just walking around for a while can force you to breathe normally and help you work the kinks out.
Lose Your Belly
Strength training is best for burning fat, according to a study at James Madison University. A group of overweight men and women who did only strength training lost a higher percentage of their fat than did people who combined weight lifting and aerobics. Bonus: The lifters also had bigger increases in HDL cholesterol (that's the good one).
Beat the bulge: Any weight-lifting program will work when you're just starting out. The key is to spend most of your time working your biggest muscles. So start with a squat or leg press for the front of your thighs, then do a pulldown or row for your upper back, a deadlift or leg curl for the back of your thighs, a chest press, a shoulder press, and another back exercise. Throw in some crunches, biceps curls, and triceps extensions at the end. Do one set of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise; as soon as you can manage 12 with the weight you're using, increase the weight the next workout. Do two or three workouts a week with at least a day in between.
Extra credit: For those who prefer the treadmill, or want to combine endurance exercise with strength training, the helpful researchers at the University of Birmingham in England discovered that you burn the highest percentage of fat for energy at about 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. Figure your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220; multiply that by 0.75 and you're in the ballpark.
Squats add size. They not only use the biggest muscles of the body (quadriceps, gluteals), they also build bone. The skinniest among us have a greater risk of osteoporosis and other disabilities later in life, and the highest bone density ever recorded was in a 32-year-old power lifter who could squat more than 1,000 pounds at a body weight of 240. The bones in his lower back were 78 percent thicker than those of a typical 32-year-old man.
Put some meat on your bones: Make the squat the first exercise in your first workout each week. Warm up thoroughly (5 to 10 minutes of general movement, followed by stretches, followed by warmup sets). Then master this form:
1. Set a bar on a squat rack and step under it so the bar rests across your upper back. Pull your shoulders back as you grab the bar with an overhand grip. The bar should sit comfortably on your upper trapezius. Lift the bar off the rack and step back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, back straight, eyes focused straight ahead.
2. Slowly lower your body as if you were sitting back into a chair, keeping your back in its natural alignment and your lower legs nearly perpendicular to the floor.
3. When your thighs are parallel to the floor, pause and then return to the starting position.
If you're a beginner, do one set of eight to 12. Intermediates can do three sets of six to 10, and advanced lifters can try five sets of five.
Grease Your Knee Joints
A study in the Journal of Gerontology found that stationary cycling is like WD-40 for your corroded hinges. It reduces knee pain, and makes walking and other things you do on your feet easier.
Lube your hinges: The study found that the subjects doing high-intensity cycling had greater pain relief than those doing low-intensity routines. So try this challenging interval workout on the nearest working stationary bike:
1. Warm up for 5 minutes by pedaling at an easy pace.
2. Crank it up to 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate for 30 seconds.
3. Recover for 60 seconds by pedaling at an easy pace.
4. Repeat nine times. Cool down by pedaling easily for 5 minutes.
Try this 25-minute workout three times a week.
Extra credit: Raise the seat of the bike as high as you can and still pedal. If you limit knee action like this, you get the benefits of cycling while minimizing potential irritation to your rusted 'caps.
Break Out of the Afternoon Slump
Perform sprints or heavy weight lifting during your lunch hour. It's natural to have a drop in energy at midday, but you don't want "usually falls asleep after lunch" on your quarterly review. A high-intensity workout is your wake-up call, says Jim Pawelczyk, a physiologist at Pennsylvania State University. The hard work releases stress hormones called catecholamines, including adrenaline, your best friend at deadline time.
Open your eyes: Strap on your running shoes and hit the road. After jogging 5 minutes to warm up, sprint from one telephone pole to the next. Then walk or slowly jog past the next two or three poles. Sprint to the next one. Try six to 10 sprints.
Extra credit: If you're a weight-room guy rain or shine, try the jump squat. A Penn State study found that it leads to the highest post-exercise testosterone levels of all the exercises studied. Pick a weight that's about a quarter to a third of what you'd normally use for squats. Go down about halfway, then push back up so hard your feet come off the ground. Land with your knees slightly bent, then immediately squat and jump again. Try three sets of five to eight jump squats at the beginning of your workout.
Get Fit in 10 Minutes
Your best defense against a jammed schedule is to keep a jump rope nearby, says Suzanne Schlosberg, author of Fitness for Travelers. In just 10 minutes of jumping, you can work up a super-soaker sweat and take the edge off a crappy day—or put the capper on a good one.
Hop to it: The one drawback to rope jumping is that it takes time to learn the movements and build up endurance. If you don't have a 10-year-old daughter to teach you how, keep in mind these pointers:
1. The length of the rope is crucial. Stand on the center of the rope with your feet together and hold the ends up against your sides. The handles should come within a few inches of your armpits.
2. Jump just high enough for the rope to clear your feet. If you jump too high, you'll poop out faster and put a whuppin' on your feet, ankles, knees, and lower back.
3. Warm up with 50 arm swings—hold the handles together with both hands and swing the rope from side to side while you bounce on your feet.
4. Then try 20 consecutive jumps, followed by 30 arm swings, and repeat. Build up, over several weeks, to 10 consecutive minutes of jumping.
5. Stretch your calves, hamstrings, and lower back after a jumping workout, even if you have to combine your stretches with a predinner shower to save time.
Shoulder presses won't actually put hair on your head. But you can keep eyeballs off your deforested dome by building bigger shoulder muscles.
Deploy your delt force: For thicker, stronger deltoids, try the Russian seated press, a favorite of Pavel Tsatsouline, author of The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. He's a trainer who worked with special-forces soldiers in the old Soviet Union and now works with numerous military and law-enforcement organizations in the United States.
1. Grab a pair of light dumbbells and sit on the floor with your legs straight and your feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Hold the weights at the sides of your shoulders. Pull in your abs and tighten your inner thighs for balance.
3. Press one dumbbell overhead, pause, and lower it as you press the other one up. Work them like a pulley, as if you were pulling one down as you push the other up.
This exercise works better than other shoulder-press varieties because you can't arch your lower back as you do it, Tsatsouline says. This keeps you from leaning back, which keeps you from using the upper part of your chest muscles.
Stay Awake Driving Home
Try this workout: aerobic squats, followed by forward bends. "Aerobic squats will increase the bloodflow to your muscles and give you more energy without exhausting you," says Sward. "The forward bends will stretch your hamstrings, which will give you a more comfortable drive home." Combined, the two exercises allow more oxygen to reach your brain, which will dramatically revitalize you and keep you awake.
Get your second wind: Before you jump into the car, do 10 to 15 consecutive squats with no weight. Rest 30 to 60 seconds, then do forward bends: Stand with your knees slightly bent and your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend over at your hips as far as you can, or until your head is between your legs. Hold for 30 seconds, then lift yourself back up again. Repeat four times.
Get Rid of Your Gut in 3 Weeks
Three weeks isn't a lot of time to drastically reduce your belly size. But it is enough time to strengthen and increase the endurance of your transversus abdominis, a deep abdominal muscle that acts as a corset for your midsection. This allows you to pull your gut in farther.
Suck it up: Kneel on the floor while keeping your body upright, and put your hands on your abs. Make your abdomen as thin as possible by pulling in your abdominals and exhaling completely. Now take short, shallow breaths while holding your abs in for 10 seconds. Repeat three or four times and build up to 60-second suck-ins.